The memory of Hibs’ epic fightback as they overcame a three goal deficit to clinch a place in the final of the William Hill Scottish Cup for the second year in succession will live long in the memories of everyone who was at Hampden.
But Easter Road kid Danny Handling believes the incredible 120 minutes of the semi-final against First Division Falkirk will continue to play an important part in his career and that of fellow teenager Alex Harris.
Handling found himself thrust into a seemingly impossible situation, replacing the far more experienced Scott Robertson in boss Pat Fenlon’s midfield only minutes after Blair Alston had claimed the Bairns’ third goal, strikes from team-mates Craig Sibbald and Jay Fulton having already silenced the 17,000 strong green and white army which had marched along the M8.
A good number of those fans had already departed by the time Handling took to the field, obviously fearing a repeat of the nightmare they’d suffered in last year’s final, only to find themselves losing out as, inspired by Harris and Handling, Fenlon’s side came roaring back to eventually set up a Hampden showdown against Celtic at the end of next month when they will be hoping to eventually end the Capital club’s 111-year Scottish Cup hoodoo.
Harris sparked a glimmer of hope, hammering a rising 25-yard shot beyond Michael McGovern and although the Bairns goalkeeper pulled off a fantastic double save to block Leigh Griffiths’ penalty and Eoin Doyle’s effort from the rebound, the 18-year-old former Edinburgh Academy youngster cut the ball back for Hibs top scorer to reduce the deficit to a single goal.
Doyle’s first goal in four months signalled wild celebrations as he hauled Fenlon’s side level with Griffiths completing the “great escape” with his 25th goal of the season, hammering home a trademark drive which flew past McGovern with only five minutes of extra time remaining and the tie seemingly poised to be settled by a penalty shoot-out.
While hailing his side’s character and declaring the comeback a “magnificent achievement”, Fenlon had a special word of praise for his two wonder kids, describing their performances as “exceptional” while admitting he perhaps hadn’t picked Handling, who can count just one start among his 14 appearances this season, often enough.
Handling, naturally, agreed with that sentiment, admitting he’d been feeling a little overlooked despite having scored his first goal for the club, completing a 4-0 demolition of Motherwell at Fir Park way back in October.
At that time, though, Hibs were flying, a top-six finish appearing guaranteed with all talk centring on even taking second place, a situation which rapidly took a turn for the worse as Fenlon’s players slowly but surely slipped down the SPL, eventually finding themselves in the lower reaches even if a Scottish Cup run which saw them ease past holders Hearts, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock before facing Falkirk helped keep their season alive.
Although frustrated, Handling today conceded he could also appreciate Fenlon’s position. He said: “I was disappointed not to get as much game time as I might have hoped, but I didn’t let it get to me. I dug in, my family were telling me my chance would come and hopefully I’ve now given the gaffer something to think about.
“I can understand his thinking. When the team was going so well he wouldn’t have wanted to disrupt things and then when the boys were going through a rough spell he’d probably be thinking whether it would be fair to pitch young players in and put such a burden of responsibility on their shoulders.”
Fenlon admitted in the wake of Saturday’s match he’d perhaps been a little slow to turn to some of his youngsters, promising that over the remaining five SPL matches they’ll be considered. But there was no such hesitation as the boos rang round the national stadium with an ignominious cup exit staring him in the face.
Robertson, who had missed a sitter when presented with the opportunity to cancel out Sibbald’s opener, was hooked, Handling stepped into the action and when Doyle replaced the ineffectual Paul Cairney at half-time, Harris, who was starting his third successive match in a green and white shirt, was switched from right flank to his more familiar berth on the left with startling effect.
Insisting he didn’t feel the game was beyond Hibs, although they survived a further fright when it took the outstretched boot of goalkeeper Ben Williams to prevent Lyle Taylor adding a fourth for Falkirk, Handling said: “The manager just told me to go on and play my normal game, to try to create some chances and make a difference to the team.
“I think we felt if we could get the next goal then we’d be in with a chance. Alex hit a cracking goal, probably the best I have ever seen him score and that was the glimmer of hope we needed.”
Handling did admit, however, his belief Hibs could complete their “mission impossible” dipped when Griffiths failed for the first time in seven attempts from the spot this season.
He said: “To be honest, I didn’t totally think we were going to win, it didn’t look as if it was going to be our day at that point. But then Alex put Leigh in for a second, Eoin got a third and although I thought it was going to penalties in extra time Sparky did what he’s been doing all season, an unbelievable strike to grab all the headlines once again. He’s been different class all season.”
Handling insisted his semi-final experience will be one which he and Harris will be able to look to throughout their careers. He said: “There’s no doubt both Alex and I will find ourselves in tricky situations in matches many times in the coming years. It told us that anything is possible in football. At 3-0 down we still had a belief, we dug in, fought hard and, on that second-half performance, I felt we deserved it.”
And as delighted as he was to hear Fenlon’s glowing appraisal of both his performance and that of Harris, Handling insisted he won’t be taking anything for granted between now and May 26. He said: “Being part of the team which pulled off such a result was great, but now we have to work hard in training every day between now and then and, in every minute of any first-team action we might get, to persuade the gaffer to give us the chance to play in the final.”